My brother-in-law Anthony (emphasis on “brother,” not so much on “in-law”) works in the wine industry. As a result, he has an incredibly developed palate and knows enough about wine to fill volumes. I think he once said to me, “Life is too short to drink bad wine,” and he’s right. He’s been doing his best to educate me in appreciating the finer points of wine tasting. Last week he opened a bottle that was “corked” (bad) and let me smell and taste it so that I could understand the characteristics. Slowly I’m starting to get it.
Anthony and I rely upon our senses to earn a living: He relies on taste and smell, and I rely upon my hearing. My friends are probably tired of constantly hearing me harp about the quality of compressed audio formats (no matter how “lossless” they may perpetrate to be), yet they’d be quick to complain about a fuzzy image on their fancy 4K widescreens. For many of my brethren and me, life is too short to listen to crappy audio.
I try to impress this upon my students—as audio production students they’re supposed to care about good sound, and I won’t tolerate anything less. This semester, their term project is producing a sound-alike recording. They get to choose the song (with some guidance and a push toward songs with a minimum of four-letter words) and then have to recreate it to the best of their abilities. Some of the students have taken to this like moth to flame. I have one particular student who, weeks before the due date was already showing me rough mixes of a recording that could pass as the original of “England” by The National. I joked that since he’s been doing such a great job so early in the semester that he’ll have to do the rest of the LP. Kudos, Justin Krass.
Once a student selected a song, their next assignment was to get a high-quality recording of it. In my book, in front of the class, “high quality” means “go out and buy the CD, or if you prefer the LP.” I’ll be happy to transcribe it to 88.2 kHz/24-bit on my snooty-patooty turntable. At first they balk. They’d rather just go to YouTube (crap audio) or Spotify (semi-crap audio) or try to download an MP3 from the iTunes store. “Absolute rubbish,” said the cranky middle-aged professor. “These are formats for convenience and amateurs, not for critical listening. How can you possibly expect to recreate a recording when you can’t hear what’s on the recording?” I growled, miserably.
After they made their choices some actually went out and purchased vinyl, so I tried a little experiment: I rounded up various formats of the recordings: MP3s, CDs and in some cases I made a high-quality transfer from vinyl to 88.2/24-bit. We cued the songs on YouTube and Spotify in the studio, sat down and listened. When I say listen, they know I’m not joking around. “Listen” really means, “Your life stops for the next five minutes. You do nothing but use your ears. You do not type, write, pick your nose, tap your phone, iPad or even tap your fingers. You will be silent!!! And listen.”
And I’ll be damned if these kids didn’t flip out when we listened. We started with YouTube. “But it says ‘high res audio file,’” one of them said. “The Internet also says it’ll snow tomorrow, too. In Hawaii,” I retorted. Absolute garbage. Then we’d listen on Spotify. A bit better. Then we’d listen to a 44.1/16-bit file from a CD or the transfer from vinyl. Given the selection of songs, some of the vinyl (which came out of my collection) was less-than-optimal, and had surface noise. But the general reaction when they heard the 44.1/16-bit files and the vinyl transfers was somewhere between jaws dropping and “what the $%^&!?” Yeah that’s right. Listen to those background vocals on “Black Cow” or that kick drum on “Purple Rain.” If you can’t hear them, how you ‘gonna duplicate them?
Part of our listening process was isolating a section of the song and switching between the various formats, concentrating on how the bottom end on the kick drum varied between the YouTube stream and the CD. Or how the reverb disappeared when we listened to an MP3. I can’t tell you how happy I was that these kids could hear the difference. Now I’m making them tell their friends: Life is too short to listen to crappy audio!